World Challenge 2014: South Africa

Student Perspective by Shereen Al-Sawwaf ‘15

Amidst a history of hardship, South Africa is a country rooted in a strong tradition of hospitality. In June, a group of 14 Dwight-Englewood students and two teachers traveled to South Africa with British company World Challenge and experienced this hospitality.

World Challenge trips are unique in that students control all aspects of their trip. Before the trip begins, students gather as a team to plan the itinerary and to coordinate fundraising efforts for the community service portion of the trip. In the country, students organize the logistics such as accommodations, transportation, and food. On any other trip, these logistics would be taken care of beforehand. However, World Challenges places a certain level of responsibility on students to plan out the trip details. In this sense, students also get to experience a certain level of freedom and independence by crafting their own trip.

We started our trip in Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa. Upon arrival, we drove to Soweto, a township that is home to the Apartheid Museum and Nelson Mandela’s house. Both places gave us a taste of South Africa’s history. We all got emotional as we witnessed the horrors of apartheid and the triumph of a determined nation through the captivating exhibits.

After a short stay in Johannesburg, we transitioned into the community service portion of our trip at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership School for Girls (OWLAG). Unlike previous World Challenge trips where we did physical labor, we had more of a cultural exchange with the OWLAG girls. Each Dwight student paired up with an OWLAG girl for a tour of the school. We then convened as a group to watch their all-school assembly, which was a commemoration of Youth Day (a day in 1976 when South African students protested an Afrikaans education).

Through the assembly and our individual interactions with the girls, we were able to learn more about the rich South African culture. We also created lasting bonds with all of the OWLAG girls, realizing that we shared many similarities despite our locations on diametric sides of the globe. We were impressed with how insightful, respectful and intellectual the girls are. To this day, I still keep in touch with some of the girls I met over there.

We then took a nine-hour bus ride to Durban, a city located on the South African coast. Durban is home to some of the major stadiums from the 2010 World Cup, which we passed as we drove through the city. We also spent some time on the beach, enjoying an evening swim in the Indian Ocean. Durban is also famous for its markets. We strolled through a beachside market and bought many souvenirs before driving to St. Lucia.

St. Lucia is the starting point of many safaris. Immediately after arriving, we went on a sunset river safari. We got to watch the colorful South African sunset behind hippos resting on the river bank.

We woke up at 5 o’clock the next morning for our all-day safari in the National Park. Because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are switched; our summer is their winter. As a result, it was freezing as we drove through the park in an open-air truck. We huddled under blankets for warmth.

As the sun rose over the National Park, the weather warmed and we were able to see many animals. We saw impalas, rhinoceri, lions, wildebeests, giraffes, zebras and more. Unfortunately, we were not able to see any elephants or leopards, two of the species in the “Big Five Game” – the most famous species in Africa: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

The next day, we went on a hike through a lot of foliage and arrived on an isolated beach. While we didn’t see any animals on our hike, the landscape was idyllic.

For our last night in South Africa, we decided to go on a night safari. It was hard to spot the animals in the dark, but our guide had a large spotlight that he shone on trees so we could see. We saw the same animals we’d seen on our all-day safari, but this time in the dark. It was a different experience, but one that all of us were happy to have.

Our trip pushed many of us outside our comfort zones. From the beginning to the end, we learned responsibility as we experienced a different type of freedom and independence. However, most importantly, we had the experience of a lifetime.

Teacher Perspective by Morgan Withrow

This past summer, the World Challenge program embarked on a journey to the beautiful country of South Africa. The World Challenge program is comprised of four main segments: acclimatization, service, trekking and rest & relaxation (R&R), but perhaps the most unique part of the World Challenge program is that the students are in charge of the creation of the itinerary: booking hostels and organizing transportation & meals.

Fourteen students and two Dwight Englewood Middle School teachers, Morgan Withrow and Anne Goodman, arrived in Johannesburg on June 14 and were immediately thrown back into the pre-apartheid era through a visit to Nelson Mandela’s home and to the Apartheid Museum. The group also had the unique opportunity to visit the world-renowned Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) for a cultural exchange with the OWLAG girls. Over 500 schools apply for the opportunity to visit OWLAG, and only two schools are accepted during the school year! Our students didn’t know what to expect, but were blown away by the sophistication and passion of the OWLAG students. Our D-E students were given an individual tour and had lunch with the OWLAG girls, but the most inspiring portion of the day was attending the student-run assembly. Celebrating National Youth Day, a major holiday in South African apartheid history, the school sponsored the poster-woman of the Apartheid movement, Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Pieterson – the schoolchild who was shot by police who became the iconic image for apartheid. She spoke of vivid memories from that day’s events, a protest on June 16, 1976, in which school children protested the implementation of Afrikaans and English as dual medium of instruction in secondary schools on a 50:50 basis. During the course of what is known as the Sowetto Uprising, more than 176 people were killed during these protests.

After the initial legs of acclimatizing to the culture and meeting the incredible students of the OWLAG school, the team headed south on a 10-hour bus journey to the small coastal town of St. Lucia, which was our base for the next portion of the trip: trekking and R&R. While our treks were limited this year due to wildlife (it’s too dangerous to do much hiking with wild lions, elephants and hippos!), we had an unbelievably stunning hike around the island of St. Lucia, including an isolated, rugged stretch of beach spanning the coastline for 10+ miles. And finally for the R&R portion, the team headed out on multiple safari drives. We took a sunset safari boat cruise to see hippos in their natural habitat; a daytime safari drive where the group saw a pride of lion including seven cubs, three male and four female lions; and a nighttime safari drive where we saw baby giraffe playing at sunset and a bat that flew into our safari truck!

All in all, it was an incredible experience had by all. Stay tuned for World Challenge’s next adventure to Iceland in summer 2015!

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